Art making for Henry Darger is a recovery of childhood vision with eyes wide open. At the heart of this vision lie the language of fire and the language of childhood, both possessing primal natures too unpredictable and protean to control completely. Fire and childhood reign in Darger’s imagination as icons of instability—mutable and bewitching catalysts pressing and exceeding the boundaries of description and possibility.
Previous scholarship interprets Darger’s visual work in three frames: one, purely narrative, reflecting only the written text of the Realms of the Unreal; two, a Freudian analysis disclosing the artist’s childhood; and three, a paradigm of outsider art. The chapters that shape Pyre acknowledge the value of these interpretive frames, finding their analyses both useful and problematic in revealing meaning in Darger’s art. Pyre broadens current scholarship through inclusive and interdisciplinary modes—reading Darger’s artistic production as a personal mythology filtering and re-interpreting culture. Accordingly, this reading forges new perspectives antithetical to the dominant conceptual model of the solipsistic “outsider artist.”
As a visual artist, Darger conveys moments beyond description through vacillating knowns and unknowns. He wields fiery tropes and narratives bringing forth flame’s vast ability to stimulate reveries of generation, animation, sexuality, desire, spiritual passion, and destruction. Pyre locates these potent manifestations in couplings of fire and little girls, asserting that, within this striking duo, Darger relays the wealth of his art’s emotional investment, spiritual aspirations, and erotic tensions.
Pyre considers the range of fiery metaphor and visible flame within the allure of panoramic spectacle, within combinations and re-combinations of girl-bodies, within the invocations of childhood innocence and Catholic religiosity, and within the undercurrents of heated desire that unfurl into excesses of poetics and meaning. Returning time and again to flame’s mercurial manifestations, Pyre reveals the elusive transmissions and irresolvable tensions that drive Darger’s Realms of the Unreal and locates circuits through which his project, created in a space of privation, openly converses with visual culture and the historical milieu of Darger’s time.